How did time begin as a concept

"Metaphors can kill"


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Words can serve as heuristics that we can use to quickly classify information. Their strength lies in the associations they awaken. This is especially true of metaphors. They transfer a concrete experience to an abstract concept. An idea has to be digested, a theory substantiated, an argument sharpened. Metaphors are at the interface between perceiving and acting on the one hand and thinking on the other. And they are thus far more than rhetorical figures and poetic icing on the cake that we encountered in German lessons.

The linguist George Lakoff is convinced: "Metaphors can kill." With this sentence he started an article in March 2003 about the impending war against Iraq. He was referring to the phrase "war on terror" coined by the Bush administration after September 11, 2001. The course was set hours after the attacks. Initially the government spoke of "victims" and a few hours later of "losses".

"A linguistic moment of the highest political relevance," says Lakoff. Because with this exchange of words, the interpretation of the attacks changed: from a crime to an act of war. That led to the metaphor "war on terror" - and ultimately to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with tens of thousands dead.

Lakoff's sometimes bold theses are controversial among linguists. But even moderate linguists do not deny that metaphors can influence public opinion. "Politicians are playing with it," says Hans-Jörg Schmid from the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. For example, the "euro rescue package", a quite new word creation, is interesting. "That arouses the association that one is protecting a state that has got into a storm through no fault of its own." The English term is completely different bail out , which means something like "knock out", but also "get out of jail on bail". He suggests that the state threatened by bankruptcy is itself to blame for its predicament, possibly even criminal.

Scientists have shown in experiments how great the influence of metaphors actually is. The psychologist Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University, for example, presented test subjects with two versions of a text that described the crime problem in the fictional city of Addison. They only differed in the first sentence. Once the crime was described in it as a "wild animal", once as a "virus". The subjects were asked to suggest ways in which the crimes in Addison could be reduced.

The result was clear: the participants who had been presented with crime as a wild beast were more likely to advocate persistently hunting down the criminals, imprisoning them and enacting stricter laws. Those who were introduced to crime as a virus, on the other hand, mostly suggested researching the causes, fighting poverty and improving education. A single word made the difference! The scariest thing about it: Both groups gave the same reason for their decision, the crime statistics in the text. But the numbers were the same.

Obviously, metaphors work in secret; we do not even notice how great their power is. "That increases their strength even more," says Lera Boroditsky. "Metaphors structure and influence which information we include in a decision." You could activate a whole web of associations in your memory that influence thoughts. The metaphor in her experiment, for example, reminds us of how viruses and wild animals behave. "And all other information is then subordinated to this concept." Of course, information also falls under the table that one no longer thinks about because it does not fit into the concept. There is a risk that we will overlook important facts and overestimate others. "Metaphors hide and highlight," says Lakoff. "Metaphors hide and highlight."

Recent studies by brain researchers show that images of speech also activate those areas in the brain that are linked to the literal meaning of the terms. The representatives of the two schools had argued about this for a long time. "I thought we should ask the brain about it," says neuroscientist Friedemann Pulvermüller from the Free University of Berlin. During a research stay in England, he placed test subjects under a device that measures the magnetic activity of the brain and presented them with literal as well as metaphorical sentences that had to do with arm or leg movements: "John picks her fruit / her brain "(John reaps their fruits / listens to them)," Pablo kicked the ball / the bucket "(Pablo kicked the ball / bit into the grass).

The result: In the sentences with transferred meaning, not only the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex meaning processing, was active, but also the motor cortex, namely the areas that are responsible for arms or legs. "So the literal meaning actually resonates in the brain," says Pulvermüller. When the neuroscientist presented his study, George Lakoff was also in the audience. Pulvermüller remembers his reaction well: "He almost jumped off his chair."

The neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran even believes that metaphors could have arisen as a result of physiological changes in the brain, namely because regions that are close to one another have networked with one another. For example, the areas that are responsible for seeing and hearing: Synesthesia, i.e. the coupling of several areas of perception, would then be responsible for the "bright voices" and the "screaming colors". In fact, other findings point in this direction: The same area in the brain, for example, is responsible for both regulating body temperature (physical warmth) and processing interpersonal experiences (psychological warmth).

Lakoff is convinced: "We don't just talk in metaphors, we think in metaphors." Its basic assumption is that metaphors emerged from direct, physical experiences. For example, affection is warmth and vice versa: someone is warm-hearted, someone else is more likely to show the cold shoulder. You can warm up to someone, and relationships can also cool down. "When we are held in the arms of our parents as children, we feel warmth. And at the same time we feel affection. This is how we learn the connection between the two," explains Lakoff.

This could be a vivid explanation of how children learn to think about abstract concepts. It could also explain how students and adults grasp complex issues. In fact, learning research shows that metaphors and analogies make it easier to acquire new knowledge. If you believe Lakoff, analogies like "An atom is built like a solar system" or "An antibody works like a key to a lock" are not just educational tools, but the basic mechanism with which we understand difficult to access concepts in the first place - analogies and metaphors as our most important thinking tool.